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January 29, 2010

Book Notes - Jason Bitner ("Cassette From My Ex")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

In Cassette From My Ex, noted musicians and writers (including Rick Moody, Magnetic Fields' Claudia Gonson, and others) share their personal cassette mix tapes, along with the story behind them. Often adorned with photos of the cassette tapes and labels, these stories are snapshots of love and friendship, time capsules of a personal past.

I was surprised at how many memories these stories, playlists, and even the photos brought back, even more so when I dug into some of my old mix cassettes. I remembered the labor of love that went into creating a mix cassette in the pre-MP3 and CD days, recording the songs and designing the cover by hand. Music is a powerful memory cue, I am still surprised at how much a song (or series of songs) can transport me back in time or perfectly capture a period of time.

Over the holidays I found myself giving copies of this book to friends, along with CDs (with scans of the original cassette artwork) of the mix tapes they have given me over the years. Thanks to Jason Bitner for reminding me about the power of the mixtape.

In his own words, here is Jason Bitner's Book Notes music playlist for his book, Cassette From My Ex: Stories and Soundtracks of Lost Loves:

Cassette From My Ex shares the stories about being young and in love, and those mixtapes which came from our earliest relationships.  Our new book has sixty of these stories of failed relationships from our favorite writers and musicians, along with the tracklistings and remembrances of the songs which created the soundtracks to these loves.

When I was pondering what kind of mixtape to create here, I decided to put together a post-breakup compilation to help get you through the post-breakup grief.  Breakup mixtapes are a rare bird - tapes were typically made for crushes or lovers rather than exes.  These are the songs which describe the various stages of grief you might have gone through, yourself.  It's a short mix, sure, but these songs are each intended to be left on repeat for a week or so.  

Joy Division: "Love Will Tear Us Apart"

When routine bites hard, and ambitions are low 
And resentment rides high, but emotions won't grow 
And we're changing our ways, taking different roads

Don't get me wrong, personal growth is a great thing, but relationships can get sticky when partners' futures fall out of line.  There's a wise man who once advised his friend who'd been through multiple marriages who asked the wise man about the secret to his decades-long commitment. "I've had six marriages one time; You've had one marriage six times."  

It's surprising how often this song shows up on mixtapes considering how the lyrics are so doom-filled.  The title alone is so clear about the inevitability of the demise- it may be the saddest part of the song.

It's not "Love MIGHT Tear Us Apart" or "Love COULD Tear Us Apart."  The "will" implies an epiphany realizing there's no way around the split.  This kind of foresight can be devastating, unless you're the romantic and tragedy-prone type.

Stevie Wonder: "We Can Work It Out"

While you see it your way / Run the risk of knowing that our love may soon be gone

I've always preferred the Stevie Wonder version over the Beatles'--it's much more upbeat, and it reminds me of The Smiths in a way, with Johnny Marrs' jangly, cheery guitars countering Morrissey's dour and melancholy lyrics.  Did the Smiths take a note from Stevie Wonder's cover song?

As a relationship starts to fall apart, there's often one person who's still wanting the couple to stay together.  I imagine that the first song you'd want to hear is "We Can Work It Out" because it acknowledges that while things are going wrong, there's still a sense of hope for making things better.  "We CAN work it out."  

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross would like describe this sunny optimism as the first stage of grief: denial.

Carol Elvin: "Don't Leave Me"

We must stay as long as we can stay together / Yes I I'll love you forever / Don't Leave me now

You know when things haven't been going well and you get into a huge fight?  I like to imagine this song was penned at the very moment when Carol Elvin's lover was putting on his jacket to head out the door for the very last time.  It's a desperate plea you feel the moment you realize that your fling is definitely ending.  We ask "PLEASE stay.  I need you, I need your love.  DON'T GO."  This song celebrates that split second when you know it's over and you can't go on without the other.  Devastating.  Now onto the emptiness...

Weezer: "The World Has Turned and Left Me Here"

The world has turned and left me here
Just where I was before you appeared

I remember this deep sense of sadness after breakups, how all of the love and effort and attention I'd put into the relationship just vanished, never to be conjured again.  It was as if all the months and years or memories and shared experiences ceased to exist, spiraling into nothingness.  It was like my brain/heart hard drive had been erased- leaving me in exactly the same spot before we'd started dating.  I'd forgotten about that feeling til I re-listened to this song the other day, thankfully.

Will Oldham: "You Will Miss Me When I Burn"

When you have no one / No one can hurt you
When you have no one / No one can hurt you

So by now, the mix assumes you've lost hope that the relationship can be salvaged.  The depression has kicked in full-force.  Forget the rest of the lyrics in this song, just keep repeating and repeating these lyrics in your head to convince yourself you're better off without your ex.  Make it your mantra.  Repeat til you get crushed out on next one.

Wilco: "How to Fight Loneliness"

Fill your heart with smoke
And the first thing that you want
Will be the last thing you ever need
That's how you fight it

Loneliness and despair are inevitable after you've been dumped.  People will do just about anything to avoid feeling alone: booze, pills, cats.  There's so many different interpretations of this song off Summer Teeth; while it doesn't give specifics a la "50 Ways to Lose Your Lover," the song does imply that people can turn a little self-destructive when lonliness creeps in.  But it offers the wisdom that it's better to avoid some of the more common masks and to deal with the emptiness head on.  Good advice.

The Descendents: "Pep Talk"

It's not the end of the world
Since your baby left you
It's gonna be okay
You don't need her anyway

I highly recommend this song for anyone who's recently been dumped.  The Descendents are your (well-adjusted) best friend who can tell you just what you need to hear when you're feeling the low and shitty. This is Andrew WK, twenty years before Andrew WK.  He'd do an amazing cover of it, no doubt.

We're now in the acceptance stage of the grief cycle- the part of the tape where it's clear things have ended and we're needing a pick-me-up.  The Descendents deliver big here.  Get off the couch, screw the pity party and get your shit together.    

Modest Mouse: "Float On"

Bad news comes don't you worry even when it lands.
Good news will work its way to all them plans.

If the lyrics aren't doing it for you on this one, the infectious hooks are bound to elevate your spirits.  Or if the "Good News" message grates on you, toss something heavy at your stereo and there's chance that breaking shit might help--whatever works for you.  We don't judge, we totally understand.

R. Kelly: F**k Every Girl

Every good breakup deserves an equally good rebound (it's a physics thing). Let R. Kelly inspire and get back out there, son.

Jason Bitner and Cassette From My Ex: Stories and Soundtracks of Lost Loves links:

the book's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Brain Pickings review
The Faster Times review
Flavorwire review
Jakarta Globe review
Marie Claire review
Minnesota Reads review
New Yorker review
NYLON review
Paste review
Scribes Sounding Off review
You Sing, I Write

A.V. Club Chicago mixtape by the author
Boston Globe interview with the author
New York Post profile of the author
Paper Cuts mixtape by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (a yearly reading project)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics & graphic novel highlights)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)

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